Can China Turn EV Infrastructure Startup, Better Place Into a Success?

Better Place battery demo

Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place has a compelling business model: Better Place-branded EV charging stations allow drivers to juice up at home and at work, while gas station-like battery switch stations let users take long trips without stopping to charge--all for a monthly subscription fee. But if Better Place ultimately succeeds, it will be because carmakers decide to go along with the battery switch model.

Renault-Nissan is already working with Better Place on bringing its charging and battery switch stations to Israel, Denmark, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere in coming years. Whether Better Place's model can scale up, though, will likely depend what China--a leader in the burgeoning EV market--decides to do.

That's why Better Place partnered with Chinese car maker Chery earlier this year to build switchable battery-capable EVs. As part of the partnership, Better Place and Chery will also try to work with the Chinese government on an EV pilot project.

"We always said we want China to get in on [the battery switch] system because it creates a de facto standard," says Better Place CEO Shai Agassi.

It appears that China is, in fact, quite interested in battery switch technology. Earlier this month, the Chinese Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Industry, Development and Reform Commission, and automaker BYD met in Shenzhen to announce a series of regional and national subsidies for pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. During the meeting, officials also agreed that battery switch stations might be necessary for a workable EV infrastructure. Backing from the country, which is set to have a $220 billion car market by 2030, could be the tipping point for Better Place.

But what if China ultimately takes Better Place's model and runs with it, leaving the startup out of the loop? Not a problem, says Agassi. "Whether they choose Better Place technology or not, we know one thing: we will get a supply chain going in China," he explains. "China going electric decreases the price of EVs for everyone."

While Better Place doesn't yet have a concrete plan to roll-out its switch stations and charge spots in China, the startup is watching the country closely. "China is a marathon," says Dan Cohen, Better Place's vice president of strategic initiatives. "It's not an easy place, but when they need something, they find a way to work with you."

 

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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